The reblogged post above is by Cristian Mihai, a young Romanian fiction writer, a self-publisher with a big following, and a talented blogger with many fans. After my last post, which mused about differences between the practice of fiction and nonfiction, I was struck by Chuck Palahniuk’s quote regarding the use of self in fiction—it applies as well to nonfiction. Especially to personal and dramatized nonfiction, to memoir essays and books.
Writing about the broken or pained self without the mask of fiction, however, takes an honesty and a tolerance for nakedness that not everyone possesses or desires to experience. Maybe some would say an egotism. Each writer draws upon experience and the self’s responses to life, but memoirists do so more directly, while many fiction writers learn to draw from themselves indirectly and by inference. Memoirists use the self much as poets do, it seems to me, but without the scrim of possibly fictional artifice provided by a poetic structure . . . Richard Gilbert
Category Archives: subjectivity
Nonfiction faces challenges in writing from another’s point of view; but do the genre’s constraints limit its claims to art?
A version of the post below first appeared January 20, 2009. I was thinking about it because I re-read Tim O’Brien’s revered short story “The Things They Carried,” and read for the first time Ron Hansen’s immortal short story “Wickedness,” both of them very essayistic. And O’Brien’s, anyway, is often claimed by practitioners of creative nonfiction because it seems autobiographical. It is based on his experience as a soldier in Vietnam, though the central arc about a young officer leading his platoon is surely fictionalized heavily if not completely; Hansen’s story is based on a mythic blizzard that (apparently) hit Nebraska round about 1888.
There is no reason whatsoever—in theory—that nonfiction cannot do the same thing these stories do, with their deeply subjective third-person omniscient points of view. Tracy Kidder has approached it and some others; for Among Schoolchildren he spent a year in a third-grade classroom, watching, and then interviewed the teacher every day about what she’d been thinking when, say, little Johnny acted out just before recess.
But this approach requires such intimate and exhaustive interviewing and cooperation that, in practice, one can see why God created fiction . . . It’s simply too much work and too hard for most writers, and they cannot shape the key characters the same way a fiction writer can to serve her ends.
• • •
I’ve touched often on the issue of truth in nonfiction, but the latest scandal, involving a fictionalized Holocaust memoir, impels me to return. (Oprah keeps falling for these stories that are too good to be true. Truth often is stranger than fiction but it’s seldom as shapely.)
I tell students these are three reasons for honesty:
• Practical: A nonfiction writer will destroy his credibility and career by lying. This is an embarrassing reason, as it’s so utilitarian, but perhaps compelling to sociopaths.
• Moral: You made an implicit promise that details, scenes, characters, and dialogue wouldn’t be invented or embellished. Recreated, yes, and clearly selected and filtered through a particular consciousness, but not conveniently made up.
• Aesthetic: Nonfiction’s art often flows out of the rough places where writers don’t have what they need. They must explore that on the page or conduct more research. Immerse. Writer and writing theorist Robert Root made an interesting point about this in his essay “This is What the Spaces Say”:
The issue of truth, which seldom surfaces in other literary genres, perplexes nonfictionists. We begin in reality, in the hope of achieving some better understanding of the actual through writing. The inventions and manipulations of character and plot that are the hallmark of the novelist’s creativity are the barriers of the nonfictionist’s psychology; the willingness to settle for the fictionist’s ‘higher truth through fabrication’ negates the nonfictionist’s chances of even visiting the vicinity of the kind of earthbound and actual truth that is nonfiction’s special province. The truth is hard to know, and it’s hard, ultimately, to explain, perhaps especially about our own lives, what we experience as participants, what we observe as spectators.
My three rules are simple statements about this slippery issue. Do such rules—any rules—diminish nonfiction’s claim to art?
I know a painter, a man who’s spent his long life blessedly staring at southern Ohio’s hills, who told me he doesn’t invent details. No flowers by the gate if there weren’t. And that picturesque old wooden gate was truly that, not a shiny modern metal one. I should have asked him why, though I thought I knew: a representational painter who invents might insert iris blooming when the rest of the painting says High Summer. Sure, a crafty dauber could add daylilies. But soon there’d be no end to it and he’d lose the essence of what he was trying to capture. Inauthenticity would creep in.
My friend’s aesthetic, based in honoring objective details subjectively seen, gropes toward and honors a larger truth or feeling—something he’s sensed and which he’d violate at some unknown peril to his art. We understand more than we know. His creative acts include choosing the scene and deciding where he stands—the point of view. And the painting itself is literally and metaphorically impressionistic, what he sees.
Nonfiction’s (few) rules similarly do not interfere with artistry—there’s more to art than that; consider the edicts that result in sonnets. Although my visual friend has made himself a strict rule akin to nonfiction’s imperatives, his landscapes are glowing art.
A short story writer, essayist, novelist, memoirist, editor, and writing workshop leader, Paulette Bates Alden has an impressive blog and web site. Her wise essays on writing technique and aspects of memoir are stimulating and useful. Lately I’ve been enjoying her short story archives.
“Enormously Valuable” is about Miriam, an adjunct writing teacher in Minneapolis at a middling state school and its branch campuses. A former Stegner Fellow at Stanford (like Alden herself), Miriam has published a well-reviewed short story collection and teaches three courses a term. Low pay, no benefits. When a permanent job, with benefits, comes open at twice the pay, she’s passed over for a more recent MFA, a man, who has a hot new book out.
Was what happened to her sexist, as she claims? Yeah, probably, in effect.
But Rupert, a liberal, enlightened faculty member, Miriam’s direct supervisor as the head of creative writing, epitomizes the structural reason—academia’s caste system within America’s—why Miriam struggles financially and suffers emotionally. To her, a supporting player who teaches mostly introductory classes, he’s oblivious to his own relative privilege. Yet it’s easy to intuit his beef: he’s underpaid, too, and is burdened with committee work and advising on top of it; maybe he has a doctorate, not just an MFA; anyway, unlike her, he must publish or perish.
And beyond this, Miriam sees the crux of her case: she’s invisible and shopworn; her rival is fresh and sexy.
Dutiful Miriam, having accrued a pattern of success in the hiring committee’s own bailiwick, has earned the job—even if the other guy, largely untested as a teacher, might be a better writer, as she fears. As the committee views it (and none but Rupert even halfway sees this woman toiling in their vineyard), he’ll attract buzz and accrue fresh prestige to the department—and he seems more likely to publish another book, or at least to do so more quickly. Given the deal they’ve cut for him, that’s surely true.
But while “Enormously Valuable” arises from this arcane employment situation, it’s much more. The portrait of the sensitive but superficial Rupert, and Miriam’s reaction to him, is delicious. She reads him well and interestingly—such inner subjectivity is perhaps writing’s strongest draw—and the story is thus deeply layered.
Nuanced subjective truths emerge as she becomes the shocked witness to his—and to her own—human virtues and flaws. He’s no monster and is pained by her pain. Yet Miriam’s complaint becomes, to him, about his discomfort over her anger and what he sees as her ingratitude. He’s been so nice to her!
The other short story I’ve read from the archive (they’re linked stories about Miriam) is “The Student,” about one of her students who tries to kill himself. Inherently dramatic and gripping—what will happen to this kid?—the story’s exploration of Miriam’s confused feelings becomes equally compelling. A brilliant student, he’s her secret favorite in the class, and she’s horrified by what he’s done to himself. She also feels maternal, girlish, and old. Her welter of emotions rings true, and her surprising confusion is ultimately as mysterious as this gifted, lost kid.
“A fundamental dilemma for autobiographical essayists is how exactly to navigate between the necessity to write and the sinking realization that it may not really matter to anyone else. All writers, all artists, deal with this problem, of course, especially at this point in time, when via the blogosphere and social media literally millions of autobiographical missives are launched weekly, each voice clamoring for an audience of careful, sympathetic readers.”
I can really relate to this quote from Joe Bonomo’s post “The Silhouette,” on his blog No Such Thing as Was. Recently I read a classic memoir I found tedious (more another time on that book) and am now reading a celebrated one that deals with an extremely dysfunctional family but doesn’t engage me. The writer has “great” stories, because his life was so disordered, but why should anyone else care? Well, there’s morbid interest, surely a lesser value. There’s also the writer’s need to testify and ours to receive. There’s his attempt to render life’s jagged experiences artfully, which appears to be his motive—to make something, as Sartre said, that has been made of him.
And I think this memoirist was motivated by more than sheer ego, as I hope I am, so what gives? (Halfway through the book, I think it’s starting to take off.) Why do some writers draw us into their personal stories without offending us, and how might we do it ourselves? There seems something larger about successful personal writing that transcends mere egoistic display, but this is a slippery thing I don’t understand. I think my own motive in writing a memoir is, at base, to share my experience of love and loss. But ego can creep in.
I remember when I was getting my MFA and giving a reading after I’d been writing hard for a whole year. What I read was personal, the seeds of my current book, but I shared it in a generous spirit: gee whiz, look at this. There was an impersonal quality to my feeling about the writing; I was proud, sure, but had a certain distance; it was clear to me that the work and I were separate entities. Then, a year later, at my reading for my graduation, ego struck. For some reason I was insecure, and my desire was for attention—more for me than for the work, I think; the experience made me feel needy and craven. The writing itself was okay, but my rambling, needless prologue, had I been listening in the audience, would have caused me to grind my teeth, or walk out.
One of the things I learned writing professionally for magazines and newspapers was that the more you work on a piece, the more you see it as an object outside yourself and the less it functions as an ego extension. You feel, at some level, frustrated with a work that’s near completion, especially if it’s good, and welcome help. All editorial suggestions may not please you, but they can’t offend.
I’m still learning how to use the self in the essay or journalistic piece; since each work is different I always will be. In his environmental journalism, Michael Pollan is really good at making himself a character in order to further the story. (See an earlier post, “Michael Pollan on narrative journalism.”) He says it’s vital to show his evolution, his blundering, his process, in order to avoid the dull journalistic know-it-all voice. Readers surely do crave the personal and also to be on the journey with the writer. This is very subtle, though, and still begs the question of why some deeply personal stories pull me in and others leave me indifferent or repelled. Wish I knew.
[H]uman judgment tells you what to do in journalism—not god or the rule book or the facts. That’s not a trivial point: journalism is saturated with judgment, and a lot of that judgment belongs to the individual journalist. The trouble arises (and this is the whole reason we have the bias debate) because American journalists some time ago took refuge in objectivity, and began to base their authority on a claim to have removed bias from the news.—Jay Rosen
“What’s with you ex-newspaper guys, so angry at newspapers?” the memoirist asked me. She had written for twenty years for The New Yorker. I’d been foaming at the mouth over the peculiar frustrations a newspaper reporter can feel from practicing the conventions of the objective style. “Newspapers,” she said, “are a great training ground for writers.”
“Yes, they are,” I said. “But I’ll try to explain. Remember in the 1960s the incident where a Times reporter who was covering school desegregation in Arkansas rescued a little black girl from a white mob? He pulled her into his car. If you’d been covering that story for The New Yorker, your colleagues would have slapped you on the back. You might even have written about how it felt to save her. He was criticized for getting involved in the story.”
That silenced her, though she shot me a cool look. I don’t think she understood—I don’t, either. But I do know that the writer’s task is to become ever more human; in America, at least, the journalist’s task has been to figure out what a journalist would do. And good luck with that, because most of the craft’s conventions aren’t spelled out but, rather, sensed and sussed and absorbed.
All this comes back, my conversation with the New Yorker writer turned memoirist and my fraught relationship with objectivity, whenever I visit Jay Rosen’s Press Think blog, subtitled “Ghost of Democracy in the Media Machine,” which worries the subject—deliciously painfully for me—like a tongue probing a sore loose tooth.
The objective style would scrub the writer from her prose; it relies on a “he said/she said” format with little or no authorial intervention. Newswriters rarely may reveal their impressions or unveil their hypotheses; they must find sources who’ll speak for them. The objective style exists partly for good, or at least for practical, reasons. And it can lead to brilliant public service reportage, partly because of the rigor and even the cruelty of its constraints. (I once tried to teach a middle-aged lawyer in a reporting class how to build a case journalistically and failed spectacularly—I couldn’t get across how it’s done and merely enraged a man who already knew how to make an argument, at least in his world.)
In the early 1980s, unhappy with my crass editors at a Florida newspaper, I read books and diagnosed their problem as micro-ethics: I was convinced that they’d print, during riots, instructions on how to make a Molotov cocktail—in the interest of public knowledge, of course—and this narrowness was an outgrowth of the objective style. As for me, I read John Merrill’s books on existential journalism and liked the notion of the journalist revealing himself but trying to be fair. Ted Williams wrote a great article around 1980 for Audubon on fishing tournaments, which he revealed he despised. But the piece was fair and even sympathetic to the participants in this activity he openly deplored. I doubted this model would never fly in newspapers—too many time and space constraints, plus reporters functioned not as free agents—as writers, as in magazines—but rather as representatives of an institution. Okay, but it seemed sad that the deracinnated style of reporters on the news side, pursuing miscreants, bled perniciously into the features section and even constrained columnists.
Over several more years I got good at the objective style, but a stone of discontent had lodged in my breast. Once, frustrated by the low level of discussion about writing at a newspaper conference, I wrote an essay, “Traces of the Writer at Work: Overcoming the Enshrinement of Craft in Journalism,” and argued passionately—to myself, for the essay wasn’t published, or submitted—that the profession’s inability to acknowledge the reporter-as-writer was deforming and retarding. Of course even journalists covering school board meetings feel their work is creative—it is—but the objective format itself denies this, specifically that the work is shaped; meanwhile readers sense it must be the product of selection rather than of mere transcription and can become bored, suspicious, hostile. I believed, and still do, that the objective format allows reporters and editors, who’ve followed their “rules” after all, to abdicate responsibility for how they operate and for what they publish.
But not necessarily. It can be done usefully and well.
And Exhibit A in the complexity of this subject, the use of the self in journalism, is John McPhee’s brilliant Encounters with the Archdruid. McPhee went on wilderness hiking and raft trips with legendary preservationist David Brower and three of his sworn enemies, men who develop pristine islands for golf courses and condos, who mine iconic mountains for copper, and who dam wild rivers for boaters and hydroelectric power. Presented as the ultimate tree-hugger, the top druid of the book’s title, Brower is a fascinating figure. But so are the hard-nosed, hard-fisted men of the world who grind their teeth over Brower’s tactics (he’ll lie to the public if it helps save one scrap of wilderness). And they point out, We need to live somewhere, we need minerals, and we need power.
McPhee, known for his reticence about using his persona overtly in his work, set up these encounters in which sparks fly, though he doesn’t bother discussing that obvious point. His admiration and affection is palpable both for Brower and the men he’s picked to accompany and argue with Brower. More to the point: McPhee refuses to take a side. He lets Brower and his foes each have their say. Having presented the complexity of his topic, human need vs. environmental preservation, McPhee throws the burden onto the reader to make her own decision. Partisans on both sides have attacked the book for its bias. I’ve read it several times and it’s impossible to discern McPhee’s position. I believe he must side with Brower, who, though an extremist, makes the compelling case that we should refuse to molest the tiny percentage of wilderness that remains comparatively untouched.
But that’s the position I’ve come to, and I can’t blame McPhee for it. In Encounters with the Archdruid he goes beyond my ideal of a forthright existential journalism into a Zen-like “objectivity” that, paradoxically, places the existential burden of taking a position on the reader. It’s impossible to engage with Encounters and remain a mere voyeur. It’s an amazing performance. Of course McPhee, as a writer (an inquiring and shaping intelligence), saturates the book. But he refuses to guide the reader to a conclusion, beyond the arguments and evidence and personalities he presents.
The book, as rare and risky as its approach is, complicates my feelings about the objective style. (All successful examples of which, I believe, are based on deeply subjective decisions.) And McPhee’s restrained use here of self—so intrinsic to writing, as to any art—stands as a corrective model to the contrary approach in journalistic narratives: excessive “I” deployment when the writer’s role is already obvious and, anyway, he’s orchestrated the whole shebang.
After reading David Shields’s anti-narrative yawp Reality Hunger, I happened to be rereading Vivian Gornick’s influential treatise on nonfiction, The Situation and the Story, and saw that she holds a far different view of the reason for the memoir explosion of our time—and she holds as well a different prescription: not more voice, the talking heads Shields loves, but more of that damned story apparatus that he hates. Gornick believes modernist writers’ turn from narrative is a reason many readers have turned to memoir. She writes:
To begin with, modernism has run its course and left us stripped of the pleasures of narrative: a state of reading affairs that has grown oppressive. For many years now our novels have been all voice: a voice speaking to us from inside its own emotional space, anchored neither in plot nor in circumstance. To be sure, this voice has spoken the history of our time—of lives ungrounded, trapped in interiority—well enough to impose meaning and create literature. It has also driven the storytelling impulse underground. That impulse—to tell a tale rich in context, alive to situation, shot through with event and perspective—is as strong in human beings as the need to eat food and breathe air: it may be suppressed but it can never be destroyed.
As the twentieth century wore on, and the sound of voice alone grew less compelling—its insights repetitive, its wisdom wearisome—the longing for narration rose up again, asserting the oldest claim on the reading heart . . . the literalism of the newly returned ‘tale.’ What, after all, could be more literal than The Story of My Life now being told by Everywoman and Everyman?
Shields and Gornick are both guessing about what’s going on, of course, she less insistently than he. Where these theorists stand together is in their view that memoir is literature, and subject to the rules of literary art, not journalism. My basic reason for agreeing has to do not only with belief in fidelity to personal truth but also to adherence to the imperatives of narrative storytelling that Shields decries. Gornick offers an elegant definition of her vision of artistic memoir:
A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by an idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom. Truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense the writer is able to make of what happened. For that the power of a writing imagination is required. As V.S. Pritchett once said of the genre, “It’s all in the art. You get no credit for living.”
Memoirs attempt to let readers share an experience so that they might understand it. And scenes, the way to render experience, demand lots of details. When recreating something, I’ve told nonfiction writing students, let the reader know that you “imagine” if there are things you can’t remember clearly. And I mention how nonfiction’s art often flows into and out of ragged holes in narrative that the writer refuses to close with details conveniently invented but, rather, that he enters into and explores.
Yet as a reader, I’ve realized recently, I’m seldom bothered by memoirists who don’t flag their imaginings—as long as I believe their essential stories. I saw that, unconsciously, I’ll grant a writer quite a bit of license—I suspend disbelief—if I believe her essential truthfulness.
For instance, in a scene involving a writer recreating a key moment—a line of dialogue or a particular action—there’s additional setting and details to show how things looked and felt. As the writer fleshes out this scene, is there any way she remembers—from twenty years ago— how someone’s fingers trembled against his red ceramic mug as an errant breeze lifted his dark, center-parted hair off his pale forehead, so that for an instant it appeared that two wings had flexed from his brow to carry him away before falling back, as if discouraged?
Unlikely, to say the least. But she’s imagining herself back into the past and taking the reader with her, seeking her story’s essential truth. Anyone who doesn’t know that this is how memoir differs from journalism, but is still nonfiction, hasn’t written a memoir, or has written an untrue or unreadable one, or hasn’t really read a successful one. The photographic level of detail in Angela’s Ashes, anyone?
And the alternative to accepting that memoirs recreate and that that takes imagination is the madness of splitting hairs and trying to find gottcha rules. Does it matter whether something is portrayed as “remembered” instead of as it “actually” happened—as if that can even be distinguished in most cases? And should it be a concern—memory vs. some record, if it exists—ethical concerns regarding real people aside? Does it matter whether a composite or typical action is employed to epitomize something the writer’s trying hard to convey? Such niggling is why some novelists express contempt for memoir—not because it’s falsified but because it’s insufficiently transformed into a truthful representation of reality by a writer who’s instead preoccupied by straining at gnats.
Bottom line: Memoirs are just like novels, except the writer has to stick to his memory of actual events—and can’t pretend that what’s portrayed didn’t happen to him. Yep, it was you your mother beat, not a little Hispanic girl. In a recent New Yorker (April 5, 2010) Thomas Mallon quotes from Murial Spark’s 1981 novel Loitering with Intent, about a writer hired by the director of a autobiography association to help its members craft their memoirs:
What is truth? I could have realized these people with my fun and games with their real-life stories, while Sir Quentin was destroying them with his needling after frankness. When people say that nothing happens in their lives I believe them. But you must understand that everything happens to an artist; time is always redeemed, nothing is lost and wonders never cease.
Each memoirist and nonfiction writer should ponder what honesty actually means. In any case, this issue won’t die as memoir ascends as a genre. Much of what honesty means in memoir is a writer’s ability and willingness to give the low-down on himself.
Next: Macro- vs. micro-ethics in writing, and a memoirist argues for “authenticity” rather than “truth.”
The etymology of fiction is from fingere (participle fictum), meaning “to shape, fashion, form, or mold.” Any verbal account is a fashioning or shaping of events.
Remembering and fiction-making are virtually indistinguishable.
The memoir rightly belongs to the imaginative world, and once writers and readers make their peace with this, there will be less argument over questions regarding the memoir’s relation to the “facts” and “truth.”
—David Shields, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto
A year ago I aired David Shields’s original Port Huron Statement (apologies to The Dude) in my post “Against Narrative,” based on his speech, at a writer’s conference, that is the core of his cri de coeur, Reality Hunger. (Or maybe not a cry from the heart—Shields is an academic intellectual—but he’s incredibly passionate.) Now his book has the buzz and the mo. His broadside against tradition has its readers stimulated and annoyed, which surely was his aim. His preference for avant-garde forms reflects his sensibility but is an astute documenting of the continuing sea change wrought in postmodern life, especially by technology.
I found Reality Hunger highly entertaining but its particulars somewhat forgettable—what’s brilliant is the concept. What’s controversial is its theme: traditional storytelling’s meaning-making apparatus is passé. Mired in our manufactured and mediated and fractured environments, but equipped with recording devices, Shields says we hunger not for artificially cohesive narrative but for raw chunks of “reality.” (An interesting exception in the book’s nonlinear, though themed, format is his straightforward account of his own writing history.) His prescription is for art that’s contemplative, collaged, lyric, and documentary, for fiction in nonfiction, for any clever genre smashup.
As the Oklahoma side of my family would say, Shields is peeing up a rope regarding narrative: he might as well inveigh against human sexuality: narrative is intrinsic to Homo sapiens. Non-narrative presentation is not only an advanced technique, it’s for a discerning audience. I learned this when I tried to teach some mulish college juniors—alas, not even English majors—to read and write lyric and collage essays. They were hardened criminals, that group. But still. They would have responded to narrative, and did when I finally recast the class in midstream.
No, narrative’s not particularly intellectual, but it is satisfying because it conveys and shares subjective experience. As I’ve argued here, humans filter everything through the scrim of emotion—an essential part of our existential tool kit—so we’re curious about what another slob feels as he slogs through this valley of tears. Bringing us this news is what artists have always done.
On the journalistic front, many traditional gatekeepers have abandoned news narratives that tried to be fair and balanced. Media firms are under pressure from cable and web and talk radio (or simply swamped by those competing voices as they attempt reasonable readings of events and information). The result is a serve-yourself buffet of kooky theories (don’t vaccinate!) and a smorgasbord of ideology-driven screeds (i.e. FOX; see also demagogue Lou Dobbs, late of CNN) that have stoked the partisan political rage we suffer. I never thought I’d defend mainstream journalism’s “objective” format, but there you go. (See True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society by Farhad Manjoo.)
Interestingly, Shields is the son of journalists who wrote for crusading liberal magazines but who admired “real writers,” novelists. This unusually sophisticated intellectual household drove him toward the desire to be an artist. After serving as editor of his junior high and high school newspapers, he was fired from his college newspaper for making up stuff (a brave admission, though he’s wily enough to have invented the transgression as a land mine for the literal-minded). A manifesto seems to have been inevitable. And his Reality Hunger is fun, and in its way important.
I got annoyed only when Shields attacked Tobias Wolff’s bestselling narrative memoir This Boy’s Life for being “naively straightforward” and for challenging it as nonfiction (a position inconsistent with Shields’s own tract) because the boy narrator is a “pathological liar.” So Shields says, glibly misrepresenting. As it happens, This Boy’s Life is preceded by an elegant statement about how, when Wolff’s memory of events clashed with his family’s, he sometimes “corrected” his account to agree and sometimes not. Wolff’s note reads in part, “[T]his is a book of memory, and memory has its own story to tell. But I have done my best to make it tell a truthful story.”
Shields’s lapse in this case aside, in the year since first hearing him argue that memoir isn’t journalism but literature—hence subject to latitude regarding literal truth in order to achieve Truth—I’ve come to agree with him (and Wolff, who makes the same point, if you think about it, with far less sweat). I hasten to add that I’m not condoning what James Frey did in A Million Little Pieces, a dishonest memoir that he’d tried to sell as a novel. His publisher wanted a memoir for sales reasons. There’s plenty of blame to go around. And yet much of the criticism from journalists was self-righteous or smacked of hypocritically protecting the nonfiction franchise.
Anyway, hard at work on my own memoir in the intervening year, I’ve noticed how my memory actually works, how it melds events like dreams do. I’ve wondered how best to convey lived experience in order to honor the remembered, emotional truth of that experience. And I’ve read more acclaimed memoirs and, in re-reading the ones that really grabbed me, I’ve noticed how the writers have recreated experience. In the midst of this struggle I’ve also read more of what other writers have had to say.
The most interesting and subtle thinking I’ve found was published by the travel-story site WorldHum, a 7,500-word essay on the “inevitability of fictionalizing in some forms of nonfiction” by magazine journalist and book author Tom Bissell. In “Truth in Oxiana” Bissell points out that there’s a difference within nonfiction genres regarding writerly authority. Think of a newspaper’s bare-bones yet subjectively selected details in its report of a public meeting vs. a magazine essay set on a typical day (that’s actually a composite of many days) vs. a memoir recreating someone’s internal reality and external experiences.
“[W]e read a newspaper differently from a magazine, and we read a magazine differently from a book,” Bissell writes. “Our anticipation of the truth, and the many forms it takes, alters in regard to the conduit through which it reaches us.” But, for writers, he says, “the line between what is acceptable and unacceptable in nonfiction writing is clear and obvious” even as the “rigors of factual accountability shift subtly but undeniably from nonfiction genre to nonfiction genre. . . .
“The writer of literary nonfiction earns a reader’s trust with his or her vision, generosity, and relentless self-questioning; the writer of ‘Property Sale Raises Questions Amid Ethics Inquiry’ operates with the understanding that his trust is pre-earned by the gothic lettering of the newspaper for which he writes. Both kinds of trust are important, certainly, but only one opens us to the enlarging possibilities of art.”
Let us be straight about this. There is no such thing in the brute, unfeeling world as a story. Stories do not exist until some vessel of consciousness comes along and decides where it begins and ends, what to stress, and what to neglect. Story, then, is the most subjective force in the world—but . . . I believe fervently in truth, particularly literary truth, and great nonfiction writers are men and women who work to find that truth and, through the force of their argument and their use of detail, convince us that truth exists. Great nonfiction writers are priests of truth, who, moreover, have to struggle to find it, because truth is often frightening or upsetting; it is almost always surprising.
Journalists such as Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair believe they already know the truth, and write accordingly. They cynically manufacture detail to tell us what they already believe. A great nonfiction writer takes the lumpen stuff of human experience and transforms it into a truthful story that may not cohere exactly to what happened, because what literally happened is not always the best illustration of the truth. For instance, a newspaper writer tells us that two psychopaths murdered a family in Kansas. Is that the truth? Yes, but truth is many fathoms deep. Truman Capote, on the other hand, takes us into the lives of the murderers and the murdered, leaving readers flayed by the mysteries of human morality and existence. May I remind you that Capote’s In Cold Blood . . . was attacked for its numerous and, now, well-documented “mistakes”? . . .
It is a misunderstanding to read a memoir as though the writer owes the reader the same record of literal accuracy that is owed in newspaper reporting or in literary journalism. What the memoirist owes the reader is the ability to persuade that the narrator is trying, as honestly as possible, to get to the bottom of the experience at hand. I would widen the lens even further to include much, but not all, of “literary journalism,” for literary journalism—the kind, at least, with aspirations toward art—relies not only on memoir but the protean fibers of experience as it is seen, heard, and felt. Experience can never be felt or described in the same way by two people. It is these human gaps that literature fills.
Next: More on Reality Hunger, and how memoirists imagine themselves and their readers into the past.
The February 8 issue of The New Yorker featured an essay by John McPhee called “The Patch.” It’s about one of McPhee’s passions, fishing for chain pickerel, but it takes an unusual turn for McPhee when it also portrays the dying in 1984 of his physician father, who taught McPhee to fish. The elder McPhee, felled by a stroke at eighty-nine, was unresponsive until his son told him about a pickerel he’d just landed with his father’s ancient bamboo rod. Dr. McPhee, though still silent—insensate, according to his doctor—wept. His son also depicts the callous young doctor and his own inner rage at the man.
McPhee, now seventy-nine, a staff writer since 1965 for The New Yorker, is the author of thirty-two books, including his new Silk Parachute and the Pulitzer-winning Annals of the Former World, a melding of his four books about North America’s geologic history. “The Patch” is a bookend for McPhee’s concise essay “Silk Parachute,” about his mother, which appeared a decade ago; both pieces are collected in the latest book by this master of literary journalism. The buzz around Silk Parachute has focused on its personal subject matter. McPhee has always been present in his work, but his use of self has been understated—no holding forth, using his personal history, or revealing his own emotional state—and he’s famous for meticulously planning his books and journalistic essays.
This quarter my class on the relationship of humans and nature read McPhee’s 1980 book Encounters with the Archdruid, in which McPhee takes wilderness trips with conservationist icon David Brower and with three of Brower’s foes—a geologist who wants a copper mine in the pristine Glacier Peak Wilderness, a developer who wants to build an upscale community on a wild Georgia island, and the head of the Bureau of Reclamation who wants to dam another western river. It was McPhee’s idea to throw these men together on trails and rafts and to record the sparks that flew. He appears to regard all parties in the adventure with similar admiration and wry affection. He’s present as a minor character, albeit the narrator and the writer who created the situations and the story.
Without striking a falsely “objective” reportorial pose, McPhee refuses to reveal his viewpoint in Encounters with the Archdruid on the big issue of who’s right, Brower the tree-hugger or the men who put humans first. McPhee shows that Brower’s establishment enemies are furious because Brower doesn’t fight fair: he will lie or misrepresent issues to gain public favor. His means may be dirty but, in debates on the trips, Brower’s stance seems reasonable: so much of America has been tamed or trampled, let’s preserve a few wild places. The developers have their own arguments stemming from human needs and desires. McPhee’s aim in the book seems to be to so clarify this issue that he puts the existential burden of taking one side or the other squarely on the shoulders of the reader.
McPhee has combined reporting with personal nonfiction to striking effect in other pieces that are based on a great idea. I think his “The Search for Marvin Gardens,” published in The New Yorker in 1972 and widely anthologized, is one of the best and most creative American essays. It’s about McPhee’s game of Monopoly with another champion player (at their level, games last a max of about seventeen minutes; McPhee doesn’t go into how he got so good) and alternates between the board and his visits to Atlantic City in search of the actual places (he goes to jail several times in both venues). McPhee weaves in the history of the resort and the game, and he contrasts the game’s slick environs with the tawdry actuality of the actual place. The location of Marvin Gardens is a mystery he must solve, because it isn’t contiguous with the boardwalk area. The essay is segmented, so it’s structurally innovative as well as topically innovative.
In a recent interview with The Los Angeles Times, McPhee attributed his comparatively personal turn in Silk Parachute to having lots of down time while he recuperated from surgeries. “I just started writing,” he said. “I guess I’m not used to all that spare time. I usually know where I’m going with a story. A novelist can feel her way with a story, but that’s not the case in nonfiction. It’s a central theme of the course I teach: Know where you’re going.”
James L. Howarth, in the introduction to The John McPhee Reader, which in 1982 excerpted McPhee’s first dozen books, described McPhee’s working method for literary journalism that allowed him to break a major piece into parts, to think in smaller components, and to develop a structure:
• He types up his field notes, sometimes adding new details or thoughts; his typescript, clasped in a three-ring binder, may run to 100 pages.
• He makes a photocopy of the typescript, shelves it for later use, and jots notes in the margins of his working copy about areas that need further research.
• He reads the binder and thinks about possible structures; he might foresee the ending, and at this point he sometimes writes the essay’s opening, as much as 2,000 words.
• He codes the binder with structural categories, usually cryptic words or acronyms; he then writes these topics on index cards, which he shuffles into various orders. He then tacks the cards to a huge bulletin board in his chosen order.
• He codes his duplicate set of notes and cuts them apart with scissors, sorting the thousands of scraps into file folders, one for each topical index card on his board. He puts the folders in a filing cabinet and, with a steel dart stuck beneath his first card on the board, begins to write. As the dart moves to a new card, he opens a new folder, sorting its contents until that segment within the structure also has a workable structure.
“Outlined in this fashion,” Howarth writes, “McPhee’s writing methods may seem excessively mechanical, almost programmatic in his sorting and retrieval of data bits. But the main purpose of this routine is at once practical and aesthetic: it runs a line of order through the chaos of his notes and files, leaving him free to write on a given parcel of work at a given time. The other sections cannot come crowding in to clutter his desk and mind; he is spared that confusion by the structure of his work, by an ordained plan that cannot come tumbling down.”
In writing his personal essays, McPhee may have abandoned his meticulous planning, but his steady labor at his craft apparently remained. In her Los Angeles Times profile of McPhee (here), Susan Salter Reynolds reports, “McPhee writes three or four drafts of each piece, spending about two years on the first draft, four months on the second, one month on the third and one week on the fourth.”
I celebrated McPhee’s rare interview because he helps clarify a difference in approach between writing based on memory—fiction, memoir, personal essays—and writing that reproduces intentionally reported experience or which builds a case. Everyone’s method will differ slightly, and most are surely combinations. Fiction and life-story writers tend to emphasize discovery; they may have a strong visual image or memory they explore to find out what else they remember, think, and feel. But a writer trying to render an event or to pursue a thesis for a magazine or book may well benefit from trying McPhee’s tested organizational method. How neat that he speaks for both planning and discovery, once again weakening the notion that nonfiction can be treated as a monolith instead of as a continuum that ranges from literature, in the form of the most novelistic memoir, to a basic news report about a city council meeting.
Change.org, a social-action network, sponsors an annual blog day on October 15, and today all participants are writing on global warming. A friend challenged me to participate with an angle related to writing. So, Jean, here it is!
A winning narrative has emerged on global warming: the phenomenon is real and human-caused and may be ameliorated. But controversy hasn’t been laid to rest, for the issue is a surrogate for heated human differences. Some conservatives seem to feel that liberals are using this issue to advance their anti-human agenda: Smarmy and Godless! It’s maddening for liberals that some conservatives, even if they now concede climate change is occurring, contend that America shouldn’t take action because China’s now doing what we did, spewing greenhouse gases, and won’t clean up its act: Mean and selfish!
That the global warming issue became, um, polarized—political, ego-driven, partisan—is a conundrum. It’s mystifying to each side that there is another side. At base, each believes that the other’s ways are going to get us all killed. Where do these warring narratives come from? Emotions, according to my last blog post. This answer only deepens the fog, though. We have to wonder why our emotional responses are so different that we coalesce into two bitter groups.
What is the role of liberal and conservative? In my evolutionary psychology just-so story, based on theories of John V. Wylie, I imagine that two radically different temperaments arose so that we could forge balanced couple partnerships and a social dialectic for action. Caveman conservatives sought to smite the neighboring clan before it could sneak up and do the same: “They want our stuff and are gonna kill us!” Caveman liberals said, “We’ve got plenty! Let’s be friends and share.”
Either might be right, either wrong. Picture the heated debates around the campfire. The compromise: send Moog over; he’s expendable if they cut his throat.
When the two temperaments cleaved into modern political groups, they went to war. Thus Dr. Wylie calls politics our species’ “original sin.” It’s easy to agree, witnessing the anger over any two of their clashing narratives of reality. I think we were intended by God or evolution—take your pick, or call them the same—to work together. Slashing at each other in blind rage, we may not notice when we’ve skated onto thin ice. Then we’ll all go down together.